Tales from the Jugular

File Downloading: A Rebuttal

By: Etiam
Published: Friday, May 18, 2007
File Downloading and Our Perverted Morals: A Rebuttal

Maximum Metal recently published two columns addressing the relationship of music business today and the burgeoning P2P file share market. In each, colleague EC describes the frustration a metal fan faces in trying to find reliable distro sources with reasonable prices, and concludes that the best option currently open to us is to resort to the sort of file sharing mentioned above. While I empathize with his position and have found myself in similar ones more than a few times, I find it utterly deplorable that the poor conduct of a few select distributors could in any way rationalize the decision to penalize the artist and the record label by downloading the tracks and in effect, stealing them.

I do not mean to accuse EC exclusively of this sort of conduct; indeed, it is in fact an increasingly popular trend that has reached global proportions. The downloading-age populace has affected something of a vigilante persona when it comes to the music industry. We perceive major labels to be thieving puppet-masters pulling the strings of beleaguered artists, and that by stealing the music through downloading we somehow fill a Robin Hood role, redistributing wealth as it ought to be to the joyous thanks of all the oppressed poor folk, including the musicians themselves. Never mind the fact that the artists rely on mechanical royalties as a substantial, if not primary, source of income, and that artists rarely receive any royalties at all until the album’s total cost has been recouped for the label. Furthermore, never mind that labels often base further decisions of artist support on the number of units previously scanned. Music merchandise and tour tickets do provide a larger percentage on the dollar to an artist, but without positive indicators like strong record sales to support the investment, no label will front the cash for such a venture. (Note: any textbook will corroborate the claims made in the paragraph preceding. ‘Music Business Handbook’ by David Baskerville, Ph.D. is of particular note)

To continue, if we do not take such a self-righteous stance, we are then forced to admit that we are simply greedy. But have we forgotten that downloading is an act of theft? Theft, as defined by our Constitution and thousands of years of personal property rights, is illegal and morally wrong, regardless of its context. But do we consider this? No, we instead are only concerned with our own pleasure and aim to satisfy our habitual craving for instant gratification. ‘I want it and I want it now’—and may all the legitimate distros and artists and labels be damned. And to validate this perspective, all we need do is look around— in today’s society, it is not of question of who is downloading but rather, who isn’t? But popularity of any action does not make it the right one, and despite the relatively tepid response of our government and the RIAA, it is our obligation to respect the laws of intellectual property and the artists they protect.

Another thought, this more a personal opinion, is that it can also be argued that the downloading generation is the latest indicator of the slow death of the ‘listening experience’. This once-revered activity has become almost entirely a thing of the past as we trend towards excessive file compression to fit thousands of songs onto our digital devices so that we can take our ringtones and earbuds with us everywhere. Music is no longer a creative experience that thoughtfully combines visual and aural art—it is instead a quantifiable commodity we obtain with merely the click of a button and then abuse as a status symbol and as means to block out the rest of the world.

Now, it is indisputable that in some situations, downloading creative media is a fine means of promotion, and in some instances even wise business practice. However, by the currently unbridled and largely un-policed methods we now employ there is little to prevent us from descending into the unprincipled depths mentioned above.

The author of the original column remarks that he is open to suggestions and asserts both his willingness to pay for good service and his faithfulness in metal. Yet, in neither issue was there a single mention of any legal downloading service or even an artists’ communal co-op where the creators could voluntarily upload and trade their creations. If downloading is so easy and if we profess so much love for a band or their music, what excuse do we have for so blatantly ignoring Napster, Metaltracks, or iTunes?

There is no excuse. We surround ourselves with hypocrisy and sanctimonious professions of dedication to our music and our lifestyle with hardly a thought given to the infidelity of our actions. Were we truly dedicated, we would find a way to scrape together the $14 dollars when we wanted a new CD from our favorite band. We would take a chance on a blind purchase from the used bin and experience the reward or disappointment that comes with the investment. We would reconnect with the music in a way that free downloading has completely precluded. We would cut the sob stories about bad buyer’s experience and point the finger of blame where it is due—at the predatory distros for taking advantage of us and ourselves for not exercising due diligence—not at the artists who created the music.

And finally, if no other point has pierced our stubborn hearts, let us ask how we can justify our theft to the artists themselves. Though some musicians have offered up their music for download, they are the exception and far from the standard. For the majority of musicians, seeing their music leaked out onto the internet before its official release, before its mixing, before its mastering, is a frustrating and humbling experience. We cannot in good conscience claim one moment to respect deeply these artists and the next moment deliberately flout their wishes. And we think ourselves worthy to quote their lyrics, wear their merchandise, and even get tattoos of their logos? For all the respect we show them in the end, a better example of our true disposition would be to spit directly into their face.

I do not advocate the complete abandonment of downloading—for many undergrounds bands the internet is the best way to spread their music and their message, and many a time I have sampled band’s music from their website or offered to send a friend a few songs. However, all these actions occur with the understanding and expectation of future purchase, on either my part or the part of my peer, should the music leave a lasting impression. Some claim to invest in their listening by purchasing a band’s merchandise in lieu of their music. While not entirely thankless, this attitude is still far from adequate reparation and, ultimately, indicates our society’s valuation of image, clothing, and material possessions as more worthy of our dollar than music.

I believe it logical to suggest that a frequently reliable indicator of a country’s level of socio-political evolution is its legislation regarding intellectual property rights. Countries facing ongoing political strife, civil unrest, or crippling poverty cannot be expected to debate the abstract particulars of creative rights ownership. But the U.S. is the world’s police, its superpower, and we consequently have an extensive body of literature on the subject of intellectual property. Yet, considering our own situation, perhaps the trend of rights management does not move only upwards as it should. Indeed, if we are any indication of what lies ahead, the plotted line of intellectual property rights would slowly climb to an apogee and then drop suddenly, swiftly downwards, just as we have seen since the advent of the internet. A discernable difference exists between what we can have and what we should have. However, our ability to make this distinction has faded with our humility, and now a sense of self-righteous entitlement overshadows the withered husk of our social conscience.

This final address goes out to more than just metal fans, downtrodden and exceptional as we may find our situation to be. This is for all music fans. You say it changed your life, that you love it, cherish it, and could not live without it? Then stop cheating, stop lying, buck up, and prove it.

[Other Maximum Metal Columns]

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